22 February 2015

Michael Zavros: unaffected opulence

Words: Saskia Edwards 
Images: Jonathan Rae
Original artwork: Michael Zavros

The grey veins of the marble pulsate.
Like muscular nacre - blemished with blue.
Perpetual beauty.
The perfect form.

Michael Zavros’ affinity with horses is obvious. So often has his work captured the spectacular physicality of the creatures.

But that equestrian pomp is also filled with a kind of shy mystery unique to horses. It’s bravado that’s matched with a timidity. Like they never lose their wildness.

While horses are often sociable - it’s married with a reclusiveness. In fact, there seems to only be tenuous collective nouns for the species.

And in some ways I see a parallel with Michael Zavros and the animal that’s been at the centre of so many of his pieces. 

With many works saturated in luxury and pageantry, it’s hard to imagine Zavros as the humble, unaffected man that he is - even wearing the same beat-up pair of Crocs that I’ve seen and read about in so many spreads.

But in many ways he’s a calm, in fact introverted, person. Despite travelling to exotic and glamorous destinations, Zavros is content in his Chandler hermitage (for now).

“I’m not a very extroverted person in public that can seem quite the opposite to what you just suggested.

“I can seem very aloof or arrogant.

“It’s often said to me when people are interviewing me or I meet someone that I’m much nicer than they expected. So I’m kind of aware of the different ways you can be perceived.”

Zavros’ working space - a detached white warehouse saturated in natural light, with exposed blonde wood, and a view of the chickens - is a sanctum.

“I live very deliberately in a vacuum here in Brisbane and we have a bit of an island.

“I don’t get out much and... now that I’m home I realise that I don’t speak to people during the week - I’m just doing my own thing.

“And that can be very grounding - I very deliberately sit outside of the art world. I think my work can be a part of the art world, I don’t really have to.”

The walls and tables are lined with taxidermy, skulls and books - cheetahs and peacocks’ glass eyeballs follow you. It’s somewhere between Georgia O’Keeffe and Rembrandt’s studios while taking a stroll through Versailles. And, of course, you have the choice to recline on a Chesterfield sofa or Corbusier chaise lounge.

It’s like stepping back into Zavros’ curated exhibition for the Queensland Art Gallery.

“Instead of curating a show I sort of curated a character or a persona,” he says.

“It was very autobiographical - it shouldn’t be a surprise that you would feel like you’re in the same space.”

There’s a few differences: a sewing machine and patterns (evidence of his daughter’s foray into fashion design) and a kite, which belongs to his son Leo. Apparently they’re unfazed by their father’s success.

“That is just their everyday existence, this is how everyone lives, everyone’s dad is at home doing these things,” says Zavros.

“And every now and then they’ll observe that we do live differently to some of our friends or have a different take on life or they’re exposed to different things.”

Unlike most dads, Zavros was commissioned to paint Victoria Cross recipient Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith for the Australian War Memorial. It’s quite a departure from his paintings of Prada shoes, Rolls-Royces and floral arrangements. But it still retains Zavros’ aesthetic - laced with classicism and modernity.

“That’s one of those lovely things as an artist - you’re asked to respond to something that otherwise you wouldn’t.

“So you bring everything that interests you or that you’re about to subject matter that’s really not what you’re about at all.”

Depicting Australia’s most highly-decorated serviceman came with its challenges. It took Zavros almost three years to realise the work. 

Michael said in that time “Ben had just grown larger and larger in the nation’s consciousness and he’s just become such a hero for Australia. I think that that probably is another reason why I was very slow in finalising the work because I was changing direction more and becoming more and more aware of who he was and the pressure that was on me to create the right thing.”

Now, Zavros is turning to another endeavour - photography. He’s freshly home from LA where he shot with Sean O'Pry, who’s currently the world’s highest paid male model and also the star of Taylor Swift’s Blank Space video (already viewed half a billion times). 

“So he’s suddenly famous on a whole other level. But he was great, he got into working with an artist as opposed to a commercial client.

“So I’m showing that work in Hong Kong [next month].” 

With work that’s so imbued with beauty, in its subject and treatment, photography opens a new level of perfection. It’s the instantaneous nature of photography that appeals to Zavros. The fact that it immortalises an ephemeral moment. This is instead of painting, where bringing a vision into fruition can be very arduous.

“I still love painting and I will always paint. But there’s an immediacy I suppose to that kind of image.

“Especially when I’m mimicking the fashion world and various slick commercial aesthetics of I guess advertising.

“There’s kind of an immediacy there that I like. That photography affords. I’m enjoying photography more and more.”

Already, Zavros’ photographic work encompasses his signature ability to amalgamate classical beauty and modern excess.

It’s hard to explain what’s so captivating about Michael Zavros as a person and an artist. It’s a combination of being aware of his genius talent, but also his humanity.

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